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2004-09-07

Putin Slams Call for Chechen Talks As Funerals Fill Beslan Streets

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On the second day of national mourning in Russia, President Putin attacked those calling for Russia to enter talks with Chechen separatists and rejected a public inquiry into events that led to 335 people being killed. We go to Beslan to speak with the Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson and Moscow to speak with Mary Dejevsky of the Independent (UK) who was one of the people invited to the special conference of journalists and academics who met with President Putin last night. [includes rush transcript]

Russian president Vladimir Putin has attacked those calling for Russia to enter talks with Chechen separatists after the Beslan school siege, where at least 335 were killed. Putin said that entering talks was akin to the West negotiating with Osama Bin Laden and added, "No one has a moral right to tell us to talk to childkillers."

Putin also rejected a public inquiry into events that led to special forces storming the school on Friday. The president’s comments were reported in the Independent and Guardian of London after a rare three-and-a-half-hour question and answer session with a group of foreign journalists and academics at his country house outside Moscow.

Meanwhile, thousands of Russians are expected to attend anti-terror rallies today, as Beslan buries more dead. A major demonstration planned near Moscow’s Red Square is expected to attract up to 100,000 people. The calls come on the second day of national mourning for the dead. In every street in Beslan, people buried their dead all day Sunday. Hundreds of men and women walked up and down the town’s main street in funeral processions. The Washington Post describes the scene: "The wails of those who were grieving joined the cries of those farther down the street until, in some moments, it sounded as if all of Beslan was in tears."

The Los Angeles Times reports the three-day school hostage ordeal ended in bloodshed and pandemonium Friday when explosions tore apart the gym where more than 1,000 captives were being held, touching off an assault by Russian commandos and fierce gun battles in surrounding streets. The explosions, apparently set off unintentionally by the hostage-takers, turned the gymnasium into a mass of twisted metal, shattered bones and charred flesh. After the blasts, half-naked children weak with thirst, many covered in blood, ran crying from the burning building with their captors in pursuit. At least 335 people were killed, about half of them children. 200 more people remain unaccounted for.

Over the weekend, the Kremiln has made the uncharacteristic admission that it lied about the severity of the crisis as it was happening. The state-controlled news station–which does almost never does anything without permission–broadcast a discussion of the false claim that only 354 hostages had been taken when in fact there were 1,200.

The militants who seized the school Wednesday, were believed to be separatists from the nearby republic of Chechnya. Guerrillas in that republic have been fighting for independence from Russia for a decade.

  • Scott Peterson, Moscow bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor. He joins us on the phone from Belsan, Russia.
  • Mary Dejevsky, Chief editorial writer for the London Independent. She was one of the people invited to the special conference of journalists and academics who met with President Putin last night. She joins us on the phone from Moscow.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Kremlin has made the uncharacteristic admission that it lied about the severity of the crisis as it was happening. The state-controlled news station which does nothing without permission, broadcasted a discussion of the false claim that only 354 hostages had been taken, when in fact there were over 1,200. The militants who seized the school Wednesday were believed to be separatists from the nearby Republic of Chechnya. Guerillas in that republic have been fighting for independence from Russia for a decade. We start with Scott Peterson. He is in Beslan now. Scott Peterson, a correspondent with the Christian Science Monitor. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SCOTT PETERSON: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us, Scott. I know you only have a few minutes. Can you describe the scene in Beslan now?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, the funerals have continued today. We have just been–I have just been at the point–at the place where they’re opening up this new graveyard. There are about a hundred people buried today, we estimate. I mean, there are literally thousands of mourners there. They come through every afternoon. The ground is completely muddy. It is a scene that these people, of course, expected that they would never see in their lives. Still, the human emotions are just pouring out of them as they mourn their losses.

AMY GOODMAN: And right now, we’re in the second day of a two-day state mourning period?

SCOTT PETERSON: That’s right. And as you mentioned, there will be this large rally in Moscow and, of course, what people here are concerned about is that the–in the aftermath of this attack, that there may be some kind of tension that’s already beginning to rise between the Ossetians here who are pro-Moscow, who are Christians, and, just across the border, the Ingush people who are primarily Muslims and who are blamed by most of the people here for their role in this attack. So, definitely, there is a lot of blame going on, and people’s anger beginning to turn to revenge.

AMY GOODMAN: Has it been discovered yet exactly who the people are who did this?

SCOTT PETERSON: No. The authorities, even if they know, have not really been that specific yet. So, we’re waiting to hear about that. It’s not clear that we will ever know because Russia is not really known for its openness on this kind of issue. But certainly we have–I mean from the hostage survivors, I mean, they indicate that people–Chechnyan and English people took part. Hostages that I spoke to said that they didn’t see any foreigners; but anyway, I think that the truth really remains to be seen.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this latest news, the rare admission of the Kremlin that it lied about the severity of the crisis when it was happening, saying only 354 hostages had been taken, when in fact there were more than 1,200?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, I think that they are beginning to recognize that they can’t get away with that sort of thing, especially when it is an issue as large and as strong and powerful as this one. I know a lot of people here are angry with the Kremlin for that–for exactly that kind of pasting over of the numbers and the hiding–hiding the issues. So, that’s–so the bottom line is that that’s really made people angry. They just don’t understand why those numbers were fixed.

AMY GOODMAN: And there’s a late report that says in The Los Angeles Times that during the school siege, Russia took captives in Chechnya, soldiers entering homes of rebel leaders’ relatives, seizing forty people, including children. Have you heard about this in Beslan?

SCOTT PETERSON: No, that hasn’t filtered back to Beslan, primarily because we’re focused at the moment here on what’s been going on with the funerals and how people have been mourning. So, that’s what the focus has been here, but I’m sure in coming days, those kind of issues will be dealt with.

AMY GOODMAN: And the overall attitude right now to President Putin?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, I mean, the people who I’ve spoken to this morning, you know, they don’t blame President Putin. In fact, they feel — he actually gets relatively high marks. They just say that the system here, much more locally, is so corrupt that you could have armed militants bringing in huge amounts of weaponry past police checkpoints and other things, simply because they’re so corrupt. So people really blame their local officials more than they blame the Kremlin at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And Scott Peterson, the number of people missing? The count, what, 300, more than 350 dead, but 200 unaccounted for?

SCOTT PETERSON: Right. That’s — this is my last question. Those numbers still remain to be cleared up, and it’s simply not certain. In fact, police officials who I spoke to yesterday here said that they were figuring more than 600 dead. Some doctors have suggested privately that that number could be more than 700. So, I think there’s still an awful lot of truth that needs to come out.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much. Scott Peterson, joining us from Beslan where the bloody siege took place last Friday. Thank you. We turn now to Moscow, to Mary Dejevsky, chief editorial writer for The London Independent. She was one of the international journalists invited to a special conference of journalists and academics who met with President Putin last night. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mary.

MARY DEJEVSKY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe that meeting?

MARY DEJEVSKY: Yes. It was an extraordinary meeting. We hadn’t expected that it would happen. We were in Novgorod, which is a little way from Moscow for a conference over the weekend. It had been rumored that maybe we’d have a meeting with Mr. Putin. This was confirmed on Sunday evening, even though all the events in Beslan, North Ossetia, everything were at their height. We simply assumed that he would cancel it, but he didn’t. When we met him yesterday, he said that it had been a hard decision, but he had decided that he would stick to the appointment. We met him, interestingly, not in the Kremlin, but in his — in the presidential residence, the residence that he uses just outside Moscow. And they took us out there by bus, and through lots of security into a sort of neoclassical mansion, which is called the Novo Ogaryevo estate and took us upstairs and sat us round a gigantic table. There were about thirty of us. There was the President and a couple of aides. We were all sat around the table with name labels in front of us. We were given what I think Americans would call desert, and simply invited to put questions. There was no script. None of us had submitted any questions in advance. We didn’t know what to expect. He took all the questions and answered them often in great detail; and the whole process just took three-and-a-half hours.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Mary Dejevsky who was with President Putin last night. Can you talk about the scene where he slammed on the table?

MARY DEJEVSKY: I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the scene where President Putin last night, where he slammed on the table, expressing anger?

MARY DEJEVSKY: Yes. I wouldn’t say he slammed on it. He clenched his fists. He didn’t pound them on the table. He was much more controlled than that; but he made absolutely — he didn’t do anything to disguise his fury. He was particularly furious with — I think he thought probably mostly Europeans rather than Americans, who he said steadfastly resisted calling Chechnyan separatists terrorists even when they did things like take hostage and kill all these children in North Ossetia; and that Westerners use the term terrorists to apply to Al Queda, Bin Laden and the people who were responsible for the attack on the World Trade towers and the Pentagon on — that September, but would not judge by the same standards, and people who used similar tactics in Chechnya — in and around Chechnya. So, he was — he felt that this was an completely unacceptable application of double standards, that Russia was being considered, if you like, less of a — less of a victim deserving of sympathy than, say, the Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Dejevsky, we have to break for stations to identify themselves. We’ll come back to you in 60 seconds. We’re speaking with Mary Dejevsky, who is one of the reporters who met with President Putin last night. We’ll be back with her in a minute, and then, Cornell West. Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: "Elevate: Sketches of My Culture," from Cornel West and Derek 'D.O.A.' Allen. We’ll be with Cornel West in a minute. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, but we’re still talking about Chechnya, and we’re talking with Mary Dejevsky the chief editorial writer for The London Independent, who was with President Putin last night. We just got this report from, The Guardian that Russian authorities have detained the Moscow Bureau Chief of the satellite TV channel, Al Arabia, on his way to Moscow from Beslan, where he was covering the hostage crisis. Meanwhile, the editor of Russia’s leading daily, Izvestia_, was yesterday forced to resign over the paper’s coverage of the hostage crisis. Also, Radio Liberty reporter, Andrei Babitsky, was held at a Moscow airport as he attempted to go to Beslan. He was accused of possessing explosives and later charged with 'hooliganism.' And yesterday it emerged another journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who’s been critical of Putin’s handling of the Chechnyan situation, had mysteriously become ill on her way to Beslan._The Guardian reports after drinking tea supplied by the plane’s stewardess, she fainted and doctors said she had been poisoned. What about this crackdown on reporters, Mary Dejevsky?

MARY DEJEVSKY: Well, I think it’s something very interesting and — is going on here which is actually quite difficult to interpret. There is what seems to be a trial of strength, almost, going on, between certain sections of the Russian authorities, and certain sections of the media. Certainly, the resignation of the editor of Izvestia, his sacking apparently at the request of the Russian authorities, and the retraction that Scott Peterson was talking about of the false report that was put out early on about the number of hostages taken. It really seems as though there is — that there is a battle for controlling the story, for controlling the message that gets out to Russia at large. I think the Kremlin has been very concerned, first of all to avoid sowing interethnic conflict in the Caucuses, because it feels that the region is very much on the knife edge, and that ethnic dissension, violent ethnic dissension, could break out almost any moment between North Ossetia and, say, Chechnyans and neighboring Ingush and just across their regional borders if it was felt? if it was actually known that these were behind the capture, the siege of the school. What is unclear to me is the singling out of Anna Politkovskaya who is known for absolutely fearless and utterly accurate reporting of the wholeChechnya war and human rights abuses by Russian troops there, and Mr. Babitsky from Radio Liberty. Both of them obviously have a very strong record of reporting from the region and they carry a lot of credibility. So you can certainly posit the idea that the last thing that the Kremlin wanted was to have two such fearless people down there when they, the Russian authorities in Moscow, wanted to control the story, and wanted to put 100% of the blame for what happened on the terrorists, the hostage takers, rather than maybe looking at some things that went wrong with the rescue operation. But I tend to think that it’s a bit more complicated than that; because I think the Kremlin’s retraction and, I mean, practically apology, is an unprecedented event for putting out false information on the first day. I think it suggests that there are actually different sections of the Russian authorities fighting, in fact almost a battle for the truth of what happened, and that, obviously, people like the security services and the military who were in immediate charge of the operation in North Ossetia which resulted in so many people getting killed, that they have an interest in presenting the story in a certain way. When we saw Mr. Putin yesterday, he quite interestingly said, and, I mean, it’s always hard to know whether to take these things at face value or not, but he said that he had every interest in finding out the truth of what happened. He didn’t want any sort of coverup. He said there is nothing to be covered up. There’s no reason to cover it up, because it’s in my interests and the interests of the Russian administration to find out the truth. In other words, for them to know what went wrong, if something did go wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Mary Dejevsky, I want to thank you for being with us. Mary Dejevsky, chief editorial writer for The London Independent, one of the people invited to the special conference of journalists and academics with President Putin last night. Again, the latest figures out of the bloody siege of Beslan: more than 335 people killed, more than 200 wounded, and of the more than 335, half of them were children. This is Democracy Now!

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